Banff 2016 – The Next Adventure

October 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

Upon returning from Utah in September 2014 (See Albums High Uintas) I immediately began thinking about my next adventure, and I can assure you that at that time, the Canadian Rockies were not on my radar. I have the National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps for Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Grand Tetons, and Glacier and I pored over them looking for circuits that could be done in 6-8 days of reasonable mileage. A circuit is best, as the logistics of shuttling don’t factor into the planning, but if there are no circuits, then how to make a point to point work. Personally I prefer a point to point over an in and out, as I would rather have fresh scenery each day vs a different angle on scenery already seen.

Another factor is accessibility. Sequoia and Kings are far from anywhere. It would take 4-6 hours to get there and then another 4-6 to get back from the nearest city with an airport. Also finding an REI in the airport city isn’t always a given.

After a few weeks I had narrowed it down to a point to point utilzing a park shuttle in Glacier, and a circuit hike in The Grand Tetons, but then Mike wrote me an impassioned plea for the Canadian Rockies. That impassioned plea went something like this. “Eric, it has been my dream to hike in the Canadian Rockies ever since I visited Banff in my early twenties. I wasn’t a hiker then, but that is where hiking seed sprouted within me and I would love it if we could go there. I have a book of all the hikes in the Canadian Rockies, and maybe if you just took a look, it would help you decide.”

“Mike? I’ll come get that book and I will give it a thorough going over, and I will let you know.”

The honest truth is it didn’t take long to realize that the Canadian Rockies would be a dream for all of us. Rewind to 1981 and I am riding my bicycle with Frank Falcione, on the Frank & Stein Cross Country Adventure, and somewhere in that journey we were traveling with some others, and we were talking about the NEXT big bike ride, and the subject of riding the Ice Field Highway in the Canadian Rockies came up. I was told, that you could ride 300-500 miles through the most beautiful scenic country I had ever seen all right there in the Canadian Rockies, so the seed had been planted long ago.

After a couple of days research, I announced to the group that we were going to the Canadian Rockies in September 2016, and I would socialize possible routes. There are four main Parks, Banff and Jasper are the main parks (Yoho, and Kootenay both to the West in BC), with those two being connected along a NW border and the parks aligning SE to NW, so that while Calgary to Banff is about 120km, Jasper to Edmonton is more like 350km. Costwise it is always better to return a rental to the point of departure, but it seemed like if we were going to go to Canada, then we needed a hike in Banff, and we needed a hike in Jasper. Jasper is where many of the Ice Fields lay, and so, there is limited abiltiy to get through passes and create circuits. Jasper has mainly in and out options, but they do have the Highline Trail which is a popular Alpine trail. Because of its popularity, it has no fires, and the demand is high, and it is a point to point. It seemed like one hike had to be The Highline. Elsewhere, options seemed limited.

One of the brochures that Parcs Canada gives out is the back-country guide and right in that guide are a few 2,3,4,5 and 6 day back-country trips. One trip was called the Sawback Range from Lake Louise to Johnston Creek. Finding this on the map, I saw quickly that North of Banff and East of Lake Louise there are 4 huge interconnected valleys that offered a wealth of week-long opportunities. The first loop I selected was a circuit route that started and ended at Johnston Creek. It looked very promising. No great mileage in any one day, and two mountain passes: Badger and Mystic. 45 miles seemed a little short, but it would give us a little bit of everything. Not being one to simply ignore other possibilities I thought about a point to point, and the distance between Mt. Norquay in Banff and Lake Louise Ski Area was just over 50 miles, and it covered a number of different valleys. We would just need a shuttle to get started, as getting a shuttle at the end isn’t all that predictable, and when you come out of the woods, all you really want to do is get some real food and a real beer, so shuttle first.

The next question was North to South or the other way around. Going in Mt. Norquay seemed like a more gentle approach. Other than Mystic Pass on day 3, we would generally be moving from lower ground to higher ground before exiting into Lake Louise, however, there was an argument for starting higher and moving lower. Mystic would be the bigger of all the passes, and doing that on day 6 rather than day 3 seemed to have an appeal to all of us. Also, finishing in Banff is where the good food was, and driving 10 minutes vs an hour had its appeal as well. North to South it would be.

We had dates; We had a route; We had 9-10 committed participants; We had a plan. It was now simply a matter of checking of the list of To doos as they came up. Three months prior to your first day in the back-country you can call in your reservations. See Banff is a National Park and treasure, and because of the demand on its resources, it has to managed properly. You can’t just willy nilly enter the back-country and start backpacking, or horse camping, you have to get reservations for each site you want. Fortunately for us, the season typically falls off sharply after September 1, and I called right on the boundary and I had no trouble securing all of my intended sites.

Banff: You know the weather will be a factor that time of year yeah?

Me: Yes, we are experienced Winter Backpackers, and we are choosing this time of year because we can expect some snow. I am expecting snow showers mostly/

Banff: Sure that is it mostly. Could get some real weather though. It happens, but you should be fine. Just be prepared.

Me: We are expecting highs in the 50’s depending on the sun, and lows at or below freezing.

Banff: Well you have done your research. That is about right, but there is always that chance of real weather and don’t forget about our other nuisances.

Me: Bears?

Banff: Oh yeah right, bears. And others. If you don’t keep a clean camp you could have visitors, and that can ruin a good trip.

Me: We were thinking bear spray and we will be a large group.

Banff: Yeah, that bear spray is the right thing, and large groups are good as long as you stay together. Do that and you will be fine.

Me: Thank you.

With that, I had the reservations, and now we could book flights. Booking flights is where the rubber meets the road, and the “Sure I’d like to go crowd” either steps up and buys in, or they don’t. Getting a large group to commit is not an easy undertaking. Many times its not that they don’t want to go, its just that some times things come up. People change jobs, and don’t want to take that much time off, or people wake up one morning and find that their partner wants to move and now you need to factor that into your Fall plans, or family brings issues your way, or your job seems hit and miss, or you get sick, or you just don’t have the vacation time you thought you would have. We lost 2 people in this way, and though my Brother-in-law did come for a few days, family matters required his undivided attention and so we wouldn’t have him the entire trip. My daughter was on the fence, but she had a lot of vacation already, and was going to be on the hook for moving to Boulder in October, so I knew she wouldn’t be able to make it.

Everyone else, made their reservations, and were in, AND Scott Hellier from Eugene, Ore. who I hadn’t hiked with since 2011 in a great Zion Wilderness adventure was going to join us, and though he hadn’t hiked with any of these folks (other than me) I was 100% sure he would fit in like an old shoe, and that is just what he did.

I found Banff Taxi, and secured their services for a shuttle from Banff to Lake Louise, so that covered the leaving our rentals at the end point and getting us to the starting point. I set us up at Johnston Creek car camp site for Friday night, however with the park so close to Calgary, it seemed that if we landed early enough, there would be plenty of time to shop for food needs (that would be food for car camping and oatmeal breakfast needs for the actual journey), as well as time to hit Mountain Equipment Co-Op for fuel and any other missing back-country needs, and that would leave us plenty of time to drive to Banff and spend two nights car camping. That is cheaper than staying in hotel for a night.

So that was the plan. Fly in on the 15th, car camp at Johnston Creek for two nights, and then spend the next 8 days in the back-country, coming out the following Saturday. Get some food in Banff and drive back to Calgary for a night in a real bed and fly out and home the 25th.

Weather did play a role and that is another story.

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